Privacy and Knowledge: Fundamental Fields of Study for Twenty-first-Century Democracies

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Citizenship plays an essential part in a functioning modern democratic polity. The consolidation of mass democracy and the nation state, mass consumption and capitalism, as well as the development of rational knowledge are the main elements that built this modern polity. Part of the nation state’s function has been to develop a welfare state with the aim to make its citizens thrive. After all, to make citizens thrive was the old Aristotelian ideal of the polis, often translated as ‘city-state’, as the sole space for human beings, political animals, to achieve their potential. In order to build this social and political system, public institutions evolved into complex bureaucracies, which gathered more and more information about its citizens. Sociologists have referred to this as ‘information society’ or ‘knowledge society’.

The early modern period gave Europe the foundations of its modern vocabulary. Theologians, and legal and political thinkers established the basis for our modern concepts such as citizen, the state, law, freedom, the nation. The construction of the nation-state was the project of the nineteenth century, while the construction of the welfare state was the project of the twentieth century. Both projects have created a bureaucracy in charge of gathering information about citizens. This knowledge has also served as identity formation, political identity, which resulted in tremendous crises (world wars based on nationalism, and the use of national registers to identify specific groups of population). The twenty-first-century model is still under formation, but seems to be basing itself on the digital revolution; a cyber-Leviathan struggling to cap a multitude of fluid political identities.

The good functioning of a modern democratic polity has become increasingly complex in our ‘knowledge society’. New actors have challenged nation-states. Multiple actors (transnational groups, the internet, foreign countries, large multinational or global companies, NGOs, etc.) impact on the functioning of democratic nation-states. These alternative actors have sometimes surpassed governments and public authorities in gathering knowledge about their citizens and in using it. The USA engaged in mass surveillance post 9/11, sometimes with the complicity of local governments.[1] Private corporations have established an economic system called ‘surveillance capitalism’.[2] China has built ‘smart cities’ where citizens cannot cross the street without the party knowing it.[3]

That ‘knowledge is power’ is a well-known aphorism, commonly traced to Francis Bacon (1561—1626), from his 1597 Meditationes Sacrae: ‘ipsa scientia potestas est’ (‘knowledge itself is power’). Thomas Hobbes (1588—1679), who knew him, also wrote in his 1668 Latin edition of Leviathan ‘Scientia potentia est’, adding: ‘sed parva’; or in the original 1651 version ‘The Sciences, are small Powers…’[4] Hobbes’s point is that, since science cannot be contained in one person, it is a small power. Knowledge of everything, for Hobbes on the other hand, is real power, but only pertains to nature. What would Hobbes say today when governments and corporations have access to an unprecedented amount of personal information about individuals and have the ability to process and analyse all the data collected? ‘Scientia potentia est sed parva’?

Castells theorized the ‘information age’ as a competition between the self and networks driven by technology.[5] For Castells, social groups construct their identity, which shape the institutions of society. Who controls the means of constructing collective identities determines the content of these identities. Now, since the technological tools available determine social change, who controls this technology has tremendous power over society.

Today, the topic of privacy is therefore of paramount importance. Technology and economy have merged into a system of collection of data from individuals as a way of making a profit. This deep knowledge of individuals is not only selling new objects of consumption, but constituting political identities, disrupting elections, impacting freedom of thought by altering one’s access to unbiased information.[6] Have algorithms and artificial intelligence used by social media companies and governments to mine big data reached the status of all-knowing God? The individual still has free will against this powerful knowledge by protecting her privacy. A recent book argues simply that ‘privacy is power’.[7] If privacy is power and knowledge is power, research on the dynamic between knowledge and privacy is fundamental for democracy. Historical research should inscribe itself within this grand narrative of modernity as a construction of identities between the self and networks by powerful technologies. Or of postmodern deconstruction into small narratives, as Lyotard has it (more on this in a future post).[8]

Privacy studies as a field of research is still in its infancy despite a handbook.[9] What is missing is a richer historical perspective. The Centre for Privacy Studies at the University of Copenhagen is aiming at developing an interdisciplinary outlook on privacy and a method for privacy studies as a field. The history of privacy has been a developing topic of research for the past three decades. But it is more recently that the idea of privacy and the private/public nexus as threshold of contested power as a relevant tool for studying the past has emerged.[10] Privacy studies contribute to at the evolution of various understandings of privacy across time and space, and how they have been justified or limited in political ideologies.

The field of the history of knowledge can ironically be traced to Bacon again with his 1605 The Advancement of Learning, inspiring the taxonomy of knowledge in the French Encyclopédie.[11] It has had different names and objects of study over time.[12] The field is developing rapidly with a new Journal of the History of Knowledge created in 2020,[13] the Lund Centre for the History of Knowledge,[14] following the work of Peter Burke since the 1990s.[15] Knowledge studies should examine how political knowledge of citizens was created, limited, and disseminated throughout modernity.

Knowledge has always been considered partial and limited. It could be that it is limited to an elite or that it is deemed dangerous and concealed, or simply that it is not possible to gather enough information. Echoing Bacon, Foucault has established a fruitful conceptual tool with the nexus power/knowledge that mutually create and influence one another: ‘the exercise of power perpetually creates knowledge and conversely, knowledge constantly induces effects of power’.[16] He had previously studied Bentham’s panopticon for prisons, a device bereaving prisoners of privacy and enabling the collection of information on their private behaviours at will and at random so that they discipline themselves.[17] In this sense, there has also been privacy of political knowledge of citizens. What justifies on the one hand the limitations to citizens’ privacy to gather political knowledge, and what justifies the limitation of citizens’ knowledge to this?

[1] Elliot D. Cohen, Mass Surveillance and State Control: The Total Information Awareness Project (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2010); Timothy H. Edgar, Beyond Snowden: Privacy, Mass Surveillance, and the Struggle to Reform the NSA (Washington, D.C: Brookings Institution Press, 2017).

[2] Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (New York, NY: Public Affairs, 2019).

[3] Kai Strittmatter, We Have Been Harmonised: Life in China’s Surveillance State (La Vergne: Old Street Publishing, 2019).

[4] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan, ed. Richard Tuck, Revised student edition, Cambridge Texts in the History of Political Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), 63.

[5] Manuel Castells, The Information Age, Volumes 1-3: Economy, Society and Culture (Malden (Mass.); Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 1999).

[6] Ivan Manokha, ‘Surveillance: The DNA of Platform Capital—The Case of Cambridge Analytica Put into Perspective’, Theory & Event 21, no. 4 (2018): 891–913.

[7] Carissa Véliz, Privacy Is Power: Why and How You Should Take Back Control of Your Data (London: Bantam Press, 2020).

[8] Jean-François Lyotard, La condition postmoderne:  rapport sur le savoir, Collection critique. (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1979).

[9] Bart van Der Sloot and Aviva de Groot, eds., The Handbook of Privacy Studies: An Interdisciplinary Introduction. (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2018).

[10] Sarah E. Igo, The Known Citizen: A History of Privacy in Modern America (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2018).

[11] Francis Bacon, The Two Bookes of the Proficience and Advancement of Learning Divine and Humane (London: Henrie Tomes, 1605).

[12] Peter Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?, What Is History? (Oxford: Polity Press, 2015), chap. 1.


[14] Johan Östling, David Larsson Heidenblad, and Anna Nilsson Hammar, ‘Developing the History of Knowledge’, in Forms of Knowledge: Developing the History of Knowledge (Lund: Nordic Academic Press, 2020), 9–26.

[15] Burke, What Is the History of Knowledge?

[16] Michel Foucault, Power/Knowledge:  Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972-1977 / (New York, N.Y: Pantheon Books, 1980), 52.

[17] Michel Foucault, Surveiller et Punir. Naissance de La Prison (Paris: Gallimard, 1975).